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The COVID-19 worldwide health crisis is having a major impact on us medically, socially, and economically, with significant disruption to our lives and daily routines. It’s a cause of immense stress anxiety and newfound fear. During the last number of months, we have experienced grief, social isolation, and uncertainty which has upturned all our lives. People are reporting more symptoms and signs of fear, anxiety and depression than historic norms. Only now, as we begin to feel safe, can we acknowledge the effects of the pandemic on our collective mental health.

Over the last number of weeks, I have spent time studying recent worldwide research on the global impact of COVID-19 on our mental health. The common theme is that there will be a significant increase in emotional distress and mental health issues as a result of Covid-19. Traditionally, one in five of the population experience mental health challenges. In the coming year there will be many more. We may face a post COVID-19 tsunami of mental illness.

In this blog I am going to share my knowledge and experience of helping many of my students manage their depression and anxiety with incorporating a simple meditation practice into their daily lives.

So, first we must explain what is depression?

Depression has been defined as a state of low mood and aversion to activity. It can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, motivation, and overall sense of well-being. It may feature sadness, difficulty in thinking and concentration and a significant increase or decrease in appetite and time spent sleeping. People experiencing depression may have feelings of dejection, and hopelessness. It can either be short term or long term.

Depression can affect anyone and at any age. It is thought that about 1 in 7 people at some stage during their life will experience some level of depression and about 1 in 20 people will have a more severe form of the illness. It is a global problem, and one for which many possible solutions have been explored; meditation and mindfulness are examples of solutions that have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years.

Understanding how stress affects our body

Nearly everyone has felt depressed, sad, or down in the dumps at one time or another. Feeling depressed can be a normal reaction to a stressful event, such as when one suffers a loss or endures another of life’s various struggles or stresses. A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a looming work deadline, or psychological, such as persistent worry about losing a job — can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes.

This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The boost in cortisol readies your body to fight or flee. Your heart beats faster — up to five times as quickly as normal — and your blood pressure rises. Your breath quickens as your body takes in extra oxygen. Sharpened senses, such as sight and hearing, make you more alert.

Normally, a feedback loop allows the body to turn off “fight-or-flight” defences when the threat passes. In some cases, though, the floodgates never close properly, and cortisol levels rise too often or simply stay at high levels.

Over the years, researchers have learned not only how and why these reactions occur but have also gained insight into the long-term effects chronic stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to brain changes that may contribute to anxiety and depression.

Meditation and your brain response

Meditation has been found to change certain brain regions that are specifically linked with depression. For instance, scientists have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex becomes hyperactive in depressed people. The medial prefrontal cortex is often called the “me centre” because this is where you process information about yourself, such as worrying about the future and ruminating about the past. When people get stressed about life, this cortex goes into overdrive.

Another brain region associated with depression is the amygdala, or “fear centre.” This is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which triggers the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear and perceived danger.

These two brain regions work off each other to cause depression. The “me centre” gets worked up reacting to stress and anxiety, and the fear centre response leads to a spike in cortisol levels to fight a danger that is only in your mind. Research has found that meditation helps break the connection between these two brain regions. When you meditate, you are better able to ignore the negative sensations of stress and anxiety, which explains, in part, why stress levels fall when you meditate.

Another way meditation helps the brain is by protecting the hippocampus. This is an area of the brain involved in memory. One Harvard study discovered that people who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks increased the volume of grey matter in their hippocampus, and other research has shown that people who suffer from recurrent depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus.

The benefits of meditation

Meditation is not a panacea, but there’s certainly a lot of evidence that it may do some good for those who practice it regularly. Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress. Chronic low-level stress is much like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress and depression. Fortunately, people can learn techniques like meditation to counter the stress response and reduce the causes of depression.

Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus, and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations intrude — which happens a lot when you feel stressed and anxious. The aim of meditation is not to push aside stress or block out negative thinking, but rather to notice those thoughts and feelings, all the while understanding that you don’t have to act on them. This could be as simple as closing your eyes and repeating a single phrase, word, mantra or counting breaths. This practice will help provide some distance from those negative thoughts or stressful feelings, allowing you to recognize that, although they affect you, that they are not you.

There are millions of distractions and pressures in the modern world that might persuade us to lose touch with our emotions and feelings. If we don’t pay attention, we may well end up suppressing them, and this is never healthy. Meditation connects us to a sense of spaciousness, which in turn fosters well-being.

Finally, …

We must take time to acknowledge that Covid-19 has had a huge impact in all our lives in so many ways. I believe collectively we have become kinder, more aware of how fragile we are. We have become clearer about our values and appreciative of people whose services we previously took for granted. By incorporating a daily meditation practice, you will be able to manage the stresses this pandemic has brought into your daily life. No matter how you choose to do it, with practice, meditation will help you control how you react to the stress and anxiety that often leads to depression. You have the ability and now the knowledge to create your own peaceful sanctuary and a safe haven within yourself during these unprecedented times.